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Science Sunday II: Curious Minds

May 1, 2016

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Easter / Science Sunday II, May 1, 2016. Our first Science Sunday was held  earlier this year on the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday.

Your Word is written large across all the universe,
in the wonders of creation and in the holy books,
written by the pen of your Spirit.
Open our hearts to your heart
as one word leads to another. Amen

Psalm 148

Just before the sermon, a physicist explained to the children why the sky is blue.

I am really grateful that we have so many professionals in the sciences as a part of this congregations. From physicists, like Kaarli, and mathematicians like Gin (or, for that matter, builders of robots, like her husband Jigar), to those in medical research, like Julene and Hyacinth, and medical professions, like Marc and all the nurses. I am grateful that those who participate in free inquiry, experimentation and data driven research have found a home here where we can all use the gifts God gives us to serve the common good.

Psalm 148 exhorts all of creation to praise God, who brought the world into being.  The sheer expansiveness of the psalmist’s exhortation is remarkable.  This ancient text names kings and people, young men AND young women, old and young for that matter.  Kings of earth and all people.  Angels and sea monsters!  Sun and moon and storm and ice!  Wild creatures, mountains, hills, fruit trees – one imagines a cacophony of praise; each creature exalting God through their very being!

What’s interesting is that human beings are listed right in the middle.  We are not first, nor last.  We are neither the head nor the culmination.  We are enmeshed, right in the thick of it, one creature among all creatures.  Not superior.  Not singular.  Not separate.

When Nicolaus Copernicus published “The Little Commentary” on this date in 1543, he posited something similarly profound:  human beings are not the center of the universe.  The sun does not revolve around our earth; rather our earth, along with other planets, revolves around the sun.  Think about that for a moment.  Copernicus displaced the earth from its privileged position of superiority.  It became one of a number of planets, revolving around the blazing sun.

In an age of theocracy, when the church determined what constituted “right belief” and often carried the power to persecute, exile, or kill those who disagreed, scientists – who, by the way, were often men and women of faith themselves – began pursuing another way.  They not only had the courage to ask questions and the imagination to propose hypotheses; they began to experiment.  They began to look not only for evidence but to rigorously record their observations and methodology so that others could verify their findings.  What was “true” was no longer what accorded with whatever the most powerful person – king or pope – believed, but what careful observation and experimentation proved through prediction or through replication.  There was not only a radical shift in knowledge and understanding of our world, as a result, there also began a shift in power.  With such an approach to knowing — dedicated individuals, through rigor, care, and experimentation, now could hold the keys that would unlock the answer of how the world worked.  They did not require the approval of authority.  They only needed to grasp their freedom:  the freedom to inquire, to explore, to experiment, and to test their results.  Of course free inquiry often led to jail, censure and death at that time.[1]

While it is easy to point the finger at our ancestors in the faith, we need only to look at the religiously motivated machete attacks carried out by al Queda squads against those who they say “don’t allow others to follow the rulings of the Islamic Shariah.”  Or to look at homegrown Christian fundamentalism that insists on teaching the bible in science class or yells “god hates gays” or works to defund women’s health care.

It is easier, is it not, to shut all this out.  To try and carve a space where we can come to worship, to hope cooler heads will prevail.  There is a temptation here to turn inward and quietly examine our own beliefs, to do this privately so as to not make anyone feel uncomfortable.

We can even, if we’re not careful, start to buy into the worry that God is so impotent that God can be threatened by our inquiry, by our desire for knowledge, by our curiosity.  But that’s not the God of the bible.  That’s the idol of power – power threatened – structural power that says what’s normal and what’s not, that shapes the very connections and ways in which we exchange our thoughts and our money and by the ways we order our life together. Look at the politics of climate denial.  God does something different – in the bible, God trusts us and entrusts to us the care for creation.  We are not over creation, but rather we are at the heart of creation.  God has placed the ability and the responsibility to decide so many important matters, into our hands.

What we celebrate on this second science Sunday is how science reminds us of our freedom and our responsibility; The freedom to question and to pursue those questions for the greater good of our world, and our responsibility to be truthful and to test what we think is true, to embrace experiment.  To trust that thought and inquiry and experiment can draw us nearer to understanding ourselves and our world.   And also the responsibility to keep enlarging the space for inquiry and experiment in our common life, in our nation, in the world; not to shrink into some private sphere, but to brave the discomfort of championing unanswered questions, of making space for disagreement in thought and practice, of endeavoring to construct a world where all may freely live.

So we celebrate.  On this day, May 1st,

  • when the first BASIC program was run at 4:00am in 1964 on a mainframe at Dartmouth
  • when Gerard Kuiper discovered Nereid, the second satellite of Neptune, in 1949
  • when, in 1935, Boulder Dam was finished after 4 years and 354 days.
  • When In 1921, the first successful marine radio navigation beacons in the U.S. began regular operation in NY Harbor
  • When In 1888, Nikola Tesla was issued several patents relating to the induction magnetic motor, alternating current (AC) synchronous motor, AC transmission and electricity distribution (Nos. 381,968-70; 382,279-82)
  • When in In 1849, a telegraph register was patented by Samuel F. B. Morse (No. 6,420),
  • In 1753, Carolus Linnaeus published the first edition of his Species Plantarum in which he gave systematic names to plants that are still in use today,
  • When in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus circulated “The Little Commentary,” showing the heliocentricity of the Solar System;

On this day we affirm that one way we human beings praise God, one way that we exalt our creator, is to question, to explore, and to imagine.  We do this as creatures among creatures, seeking the good of all creation.  So with cymbals and harps, with organ and choir, with boiling test tubes and string theory, with medical examinations and microscopic explorations, we give praise to God for this wonderful world.

ss jane 3

 

Following worship, students of all ages held a Science Fair on our Fellowship Hall.

 ss natcha 3

 

[1] Books on this topic are numerous. Particularly helpful to my thinking has been Peter Harrison’s The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science, which chronicles the relationship between power, authority and knowledge, and the contribution of Reformed thinkers in particular to liberating both religious and scientific thought.

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